The Memory Project enlists students to create portraits and books for children overseas who are orphaned or in harrowing conditions. Teachers say the program touches students, helps them learn about the world, and provides opportunities for authentic learning. Included: Learn how your schools students can participate.
A past is something most people take for granted. But many children in impoverished countries have no personal histories with which to connect, no one to tell them stories of their early years, no family heirlooms, not even photos of themselves that capture milestones in their lives.
Thousands of U.S. students, though, now are involved in building memories for orphaned and disadvantaged children, as well as hope for the future. Through two programs of The Memory Project, high-school art students draw portraits of children with nothing to call their own, and students in other grades write original stories to help children abroad learn English and escape from the fear in their daily lives.
"I thought this would be a good project for my students so they could realize how lucky they are with all the advantages they have in life, and to be able to give such an important gift of a memory," said Linda Torrey, an art teacher at Skaneateles (N.Y.) High School, whose students are participating in the Memory Portraits program this year. "This gives teenagers the opportunity to see beyond their life and problems to people who don't have a family, and to reach out and give them a precious memory of a portrait of themselves."
ENLISTING MEMORY BUILDERS
Photo courtesy of The Memory Project About 500 high schools now are involved in Memory Portraits, and 700 schools participated last year in the Books of Hope project, said Memory Project founder Ben Schumaker, who started the program two years ago. He sustains his one-person operation in Madison, Wisconsin, with donations, the small fees schools pay to participate, and by working 80 hours a week.
Schumaker launched the Memory Portraits program first. It was begun when he spent a month as a graduate student in a Guatemalan orphanage. "I met a man who used to live there [at the orphanage] who said it was important to help the kids hang onto keepsakes to honor their identity and heritage," Schumaker told Education World.
Schumaker began by painting portraits of some of the orphans himself. Soon he realized he needed and desired help. "I knew immediately I wanted the majority [of the orphans to have portraits] done by high school students," Schumaker told Education World. "I thought it was a fantastic way to tie kids together and open the eyes of American kids to the issues other kids are facing."
To get things started, he sent out e-mails to 100 art teachers in Wisconsin. Fifteen of the teachers got involved. "Then the project took off on its own," Schumaker noted.
After classes or schools register to participate in Memory Portraits, Schumaker sends them photos of the orphans. Schools are asked to donate $10 for every student participating in the program. Students use the photos to paint the portraits, and when they send their paintings to the orphans, they include a letter, a picture of themselves, and some paper in the hope that they might start corresponding.
The program got a major boost recently when CBS News aired a segment about the Memory Project, Precious Images Give Orphans Hope, which generated about 900 e-mail inquiries.
THE ASSIGNMENT OF A LIFETIME
Torrey of Skaneateles, who learned about the program after someone told her about the CBS story, decided this would be the perfect project for her advanced students.
"When I first showed the PowerPoint on The Memory Project, a few students were teary-eyed when they saw the emotion the young children had on their faces when they received their portraits," Torrey said.
As students began their portraits, Torrey was surprised by how nervous they were. "It was like the portrait might not be good enough," she said. "They wanted to do the best painting or drawing of their lives, so their children will love it. I'm surprised at what a responsibility it seems to be for them."
Students from East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, are participating for the second time this year. "We are an International Baccalaureate magnet school and one of the requirements for the IB program is to do service hours in the community," said art teacher May Winiarski. "I thought this would be a good project that gave back to the larger community."
Last years students were so excited about participating that they collected 20 Beanie Babies for the orphans, she said. This year, students are creating portraits of orphan boys from El Salvador. "The girls think they are all so cute," Winiarski said. "The students also wanted to know more about where the orphans were from. Ben sent a Web site address so they are going to research more information."
Advanced art students at McKeel Academy of Technology, a Lakeland, Florida, charter school for grades 6-12, eagerly awaited the photos of Honduran orphans they would sketch this year, said art teacher Kathleen Merriman. She signed up for the program after colleagues told her about the CBS News story.
"They are very excited to be changing someones life," noted Merriman.
While students will be graded on their portraits, "they are working twice as hard on this as they would on something just being graded," she added. "They want to do the best that they can."
Students will complete the portraits by the time the semester ends in December so they can be shipped to Honduras by January.
"I just think it is a wonderful opportunity for both sides -- for my students as well as the orphans," Merriman told Education World. "I think they will learn a lot -- theyve already learned a lot. Its an awesome opportunity to learn what else is going on in the world and society."ESCAPING THROUGH BOOKS
While the Memory Portraits program is aimed at high school art students, the Books of Hope program is open to all grade levels. Schumaker requests that each participating class donate $25 and he provides information on the Web site about the living conditions of the students receiving the books.
"Weve sent some books to Uganda, and this year we will send them to India to kids who have been rescued from slavery," Schumaker said. "It gives them [the children] something fun to do, and learning English gives these children an advantage."
In northern Uganda, a 20-year civil war has devastated much of the countryside and has forced many children into hiding. A rebel group, the Lords Resistance Army, often destroys villages in the night and kidnaps children to join its ranks. At night, children leave their homes and hide to avoid being taken by the rebels. Children who resist or escape often are killed. Families also have been uprooted and forced to live in squalid government camps.
One of the advantages of working with The Memory Project is that it provides age-appropriate background information about the conditions that overseas children are facing, which makes it easier for teachers, said Kyle Redford, the service-learning coordinator for grades K-8 at Marin County Day School in Corte Madera, California.
"This is a tough subject to teach about, and there seemed to be a lot of thought that went into making it accessible, and not traumatizing, to younger students," Redford told Education World. "I kept waiting to have some parents complain about exposing our children to this issue at such a young age. I am happy to report that if someone did complain, it didn't get back to me. Instead, I was constantly stopped by parents in the community who shared stories of how their students had come home to educate them at the dinner table about this horrible situation. Many of them asked what else they could do or what resources they could use to learn more about the situation."
Eighth-grade student writers from T.K. Stone Middle School in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, carefully considered what conflicts to include in their stories last year after they learned about the turmoil in Uganda, said language arts teacher Cindy Carter.
"We wanted to keep it more lighthearted," Carter told Education World, since many Ugandan children wake up in the mornings to find friends or family members gone. "I stressed to the students that they dont have anything comparable to what they [the U.S. students] have."
Some of the students used animals in their stories as characters, or developed conflicts around items that were broken and fixed, building self-esteem, and making new friends, she said. About 100 students participated, working in teams, and the students were graded on their assignments. They also sent a video clip of them working on the books to Oprah Winfrey, who had done a segment on the situation in Uganda.
Books of Hope also fit in perfectly with Marin County Day Schools sixth grade curriculum, Redford noted. For several years, the sixth graders have been writing original stories to practice writing skills. Often those "books" were donated to hospitals or day care centers.
"The students liked the idea [of Books of Hope] the moment it was presented," Redford told Education World. "If they thought the idea of writing children's books for real children felt important in years past, they had no doubt that this work was important now. We never cease to be amazed at the distinct leap in the quality of their work every year when the students write for an authentic audience."
T.K. Stone is adjusting to new state curriculum this year, but Carter said she hopes to participate again in Books of Hope. "I cant say enough positive things about the program; its easy and it definitely had a positive impact on the students."
THE DESIRE TO DO MORE
In some schools, participation in The Memory Project led to other outreach efforts to help countries and children in need.
"Now our students are engaged with the Ugandan children and their plight," said Redford. "We could have never imagined the power of adding this aspect to the project. Once the students starting learning about the background to the situation in Uganda, they immediately started asking, What else can we do? The students wanted to go beyond comforting these children, to directing efforts to change their circumstances. The situation is unfair and that made them uneasy."
Students started corresponding with U.S. senators about the Ugandan children, and a local senator even offered to send an aide to the class. The sixth graders also started learning about other organizations that help disadvantaged children. A group of children held a fundraiser for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and a mother of a student collected money for the Ugandan children in honor of her 50th birthday.
Some of the children also have been able to contact the Ugandan children who received their books through church groups to which they belong, Carter added.
BABY STEPS TO A BETTER WORLD
Schumaker is pleased with the way The Memory Project has grown, yet he still would like to reach more children. "I would like to see it grow in size and improve in quality," he told Education World. "Id like to have a well-organized system for kids abroad to exchange artwork with kids here.
"Id [also] love to sponsor a program that would allow new art teachers who want to to go abroad and run art projects in orphanages."
Schumaker said he receives about three dozen e-mails a day from teachers who say they love the project and have never seen their students so motivated.
Linking children like this is a way to make a dent in the worlds problems, noted Carter. "There is so much bad in the world that the kids -- and everyone -- can get overwhelmed," she said. "This is taking baby steps to help -- this actually touches the lives of someone else."